Screeching Old Dixie Down

People who remember Nazareth at all seem to have strong feelings about the band; when my friend Naomi heard that I was reviewing them she asked, "Do you have to wear a disguise when you walk into Tower and buy a Nazareth album?" And my friend Leslie remembers that back when she was 15 in the mid '70s she was sitting in the school cafeteria with other honor-student­bohemian-surrealist types, and a straightforward girl whom Leslie liked but didn't know too well sat down and mentioned that she liked Nazareth, and there was dead silence, no response, like this girl had committed a major faux pas. Leslie remembers thinking at the time that she herself liked "Love Hurts" but that she would never be foolish enough to say so in public. She'd get up and cheer in homeroom whenever it was announced over the intercom that the school's team had lost in football— she was gutsy in that way— but she wouldn't cop to liking Nazareth.

The thing is, listening to Nazareth's music, it's interesting to try to identify the sound that caused such social distress. It's mainly in the strong screech of Dan McCafferty— a predecessor to the AC/DC screech, and a cousin to the Slade screech; a screech that embeds itself in the music's heaviness rather than dancing on top á la Robert Plant. It connotes something lumpen and aggressive and self-effacingly Not Smart. And like the Slade people, the Nazarenes actually were smart and played their instruments well— and in the case of Manny Charlton, their original guitarist back then, better than well: he's a player who puts a lot of surprise into his playing, his solos coming from nowhere in relation to the rest of a song yet fitting into the song; he'll hold a note seemingly forever rather than play a standard blues solo, or he'll play circular sprinkler-system cascades where one would expect a screaming solo, and so on.

In general, whether they were playing fast or slow, loud or sensitive, they had a tough ongoing groove that never let up, as if to say "we'll push push push and we'll keep pushing." Music to boogie to, to kick to, to push and shove with. Yet for much of their career they seemed to be on a mission to see how much disparate music — not just the requisite blues, but songs by Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys and Woody Guthrie and Little Feat, Chuck Berry chordings, California harmonies— they could bring into this heaviness.

But Nazareth's historic achievement (i.e., not done previously by anyone else in quite the same way) was the putting of loud-boogie heavy-screech into pop balladry so as to thicken the pop not into syrup but into a scratching blues rasp. "Love Hurts" did it for them— it's extraordinary (I think) or appalling depending on your reaction, an obscure old Everly Brothers song done by Nazareth as no-holds-barred teen anguish. On Nazareth's Greatest Hits it's followed by a devastatingly slow version of Tim Rose's apocalyptic "Morning Dew." This is effective programming, a life-or-death teenage ballad followed appropriately enough by a completely charred and lava'd out landscape.

But the success of "Love Hurts" and the like defined Nazareth not only as metal (if you're interested, on the Internet it says that "people who buy Nazareth tend to buy these artists: Black Sabbath; Manson, Marilyn; Manson, Marilyn [again]; Pink Floyd; Angeles Del Infierno; Osbourne, Ozzy; Suffocation; Korn; Deep Purple; Iron Maiden; Soda Stereo; Metallica; Accept; Scorpions; Led Zeppelin; Megadeth; Uriah Heep; Journey; Cooper, Alice; Deicide; Rata Blanca"; someone must have bought two Manson, Marilyn albums) but as teenybopper to boot. Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith may have used power ballads like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Dream On" to become megazillionaires, but nonetheless those songs worked as slow builds, with hard-rock solos and hard-rock payoffs at the end. "Love Hurts" stays true to its roots in early rock 'n' roll heartache, as relentlessly plaintive as anything by the Platters or Chantels or Rosie & the Originals, and just as naked. Yet it's loud and metal and it's got that screech.

The big surprise in Boogaloo, the new LP, is how close it stays to loud blues-boogie, the nonsurprise is how strong the playing and singing are so many years on, the disappointment is the lack of strange, beautiful cover versions, the insight I get is that key analogues for Nazareth might be slide-drenched southerners like the Allmans and Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker, and the subject to ponder is where the McScottish guy derives his thundering-buffalo- within-the-heavy- rather-than-dancing- above-it screech. Believe it or not, my guess is that Fogerty more than Joplin would be a relevant predecessor, not just in the grain of his voice and the way that his voice seemed to dig itself into the rest of the music, but also in the way that Creedence— a California band— invented a sense of southernness from its imagination and its knowledge of the Sun Records catalog.

In "God Save the South" McCafferty sings, "Jesus loved a Yankee, but God saved the south," whatever that means. It must be music that saved the south. "Some longhaired boys with guitars/Playin' behind the chicken wire/They're goin' up to New York City/Gonna sing about Atlanta's fire." In effect Nazareth made the journey in reverse, a band of Scots who imagined America before they saw it, cooking it up out of movies and old rock 'n' roll records. Come to think of it, another analogue for Nazareth would be the Band, a group of mostly Canadians who imagined themselves into southern and western tall-tale Americana, more or less, and began their song "The Weight" with the line "I pulled into Nazareth/Feelin' 'bout half-past dead," from which Nazareth took its name.

Boogaloo is a solid, consistent record that stays close in its heart to midcentury r&b song forms and runs along powerfully, the guitar and vocal balancing each other out a little too well rather than— as in times past— letting each other hang perilously out the bus window. Which isn't to say that Nazareth entirely forgoes its restlessness. "Talk Talk," for instance, is an interesting mixture: the notes at the start form a Celtic jig, a boogie works itself in underneath, then the Celtic riff leaves while a Temptations-like melody rides that same boogie groove. Then the Celtic jig returns as a guitar fill, which makes way for a treated electronic guitar solo.

But I do have a complaint. There's a blahness to the lyrics all the way through, vague stuff about painting the town, cheerleaders who will or will not put out, and so on— which leads me to a more general complaint. The adventure in the band's playing doesn't seem to associate with anyone's adventure in living. Of course, it doesn't have to, to be good music— and anyway, how am I to know what boring or interesting stuff some other Nazareth listener might be doing out there? This is just my sense of the ethos of the thing. The rock rolls on, long after the thrill of rocking has gone.

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